Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What's Wrong With Rap - Part I

Maybe there should be a question mark at then end of that headline - "What's Wrong With Rap?" - I don't know. But, maybe not. I'm not really sure, to be honest. But what I think I'm going to try to do here is describe my experience listening to rap this week, my reactions to it, and then offer some gestures at an interpretation for those reactions.

What's inspiring this post is a note last week from my compatriot on this site. He wrote it in response to my post about the ungrounded nature of many musical preferences, suggesting that part of the reason why people reject whole genres, whole artistic corpuses, is that there's just too much krappenmusik out there - by which I really, really hope he meant crepenmusik - too much crap to sort through. So, we listen to a little of this, a little of that, to find out which of this or that has too much crap as to be worth our time searching for the good stuff, and also which has enough good stuff that my search for the really good stuff will be enjoyable in spite of how hard I have to look for what's exceptionally good.

This description seems both reasonable and accurate to me. It's why I, myself, am not drawn to rap or to much pop music - because so much that one encounters is bad that the energy necessary to discover and cultivate an appreciation for what's good in the genre is just too high relative to what's required in other genres. And similarly, it's part of why I've fallen for opera, and why orchestral and symphonic music is so pleasurable - so little effort is required to find what's good.

But as reasonable as that account sounds, I think there's a fly in the ointment. The described process is one whereby we listen to the music according to how easy it is, in a given genre's or artist's massive set of artworks, to find what's good in that set. Such a process, however, seems like it would recommend, inevitably, our listening to what can broadly be described as Western Classical music. (Start with Bach, and start naming whichever 'composers' you know - their music is what I'm talking about.) It would make such a recommendation because it is so very easy to find good music in that genre, and further, the difference between the energy required to find the merely "good" music and the "excellent" music in this genre is almost negligible. We know which artists are great, we know, in general, which of their works are their best, and gaining access to that knowledge if you don't already have it takes almost no energy at all. And what's more, the genre supplies a near-endless number of good pieces - and a very large number of great pieces - such that one might listen only to Classical music for one's entire life and never find oneself bereft of something pleasurable.

Perhaps that overstates the case, but I think the point is clear. What then, might suffice to explain this phenomenon? There are several factors, I think.
  • The genre is much older than contemporary genres, so it has had more time to establish its standards and for versions of those standards to be questioned.

  • There is an entire academic industry devoted to arguing about what should be culled and included in the Classical canon.

  • A significant musical education (even if non-academic) has always been a necessary condition on producing Classical music that anyone would listen to. And so those composing in the genre must have been, on average, significantly more intelligent, more dedicated than what is necessary to produce music in contemporary genres that people will listen to.
These factors, I think, conspire to produce an easily accessible body of knowledge that accurately recommends great music, without our having to sift through very much bad music at all.

Anyway. What's the fly here? If the process by which we pick those genres we'll excise and those we'll embrace is the one that will most easily result in our having pleasurable listening experiences, then, as I said, it isn't obvious to me why Classical wouldn't be the most popular genre on offer. Except this: it isn't. Indeed, it may be the least popular genre in today's audial pantheon. The most popular genres are what can causally be called "pop," "rock," "rap," "hip-hop," and the like - genres all that have almost no established structure for delineating between the good and the bad, and so hardly any authoritative canon to speak of. (Well, maybe you can have both.) These are genres where one can spend countless hours sifting through schlock, and even then find little in the way of excellent music, or at least, relatively little compared to Classical - little, indeed, when compared even to opera or jazz. Given what seem like strong incentives against what have proven the most profitable genres, and those in favor of Classical, any interesting question arises: what gives?

If I were to hazard a guess, I'd guess something like this. While accurate and reasonable, my comrade's explanation of how we choose our music seems not to account for a pretty essential, yet antecedent, step: the inculcation of taste. The process Ross describes is reasonable entirely, if you aren't already biased against, say, Classical music, or biased in favor of this or that contemporary genre. Which is to say, it's reasonable entirely if you haven't been antecedently indoctrinated to one standard of taste or another. ("'Taste' tends to equal 'bias.' There's a controversial thesis, at least for the hipster-non-hipster out there.)

The key, though, is that the path of easiest listening resistance, while it may explain why we listen to what we listen to once our sense of taste is in some sense 'fixed', doesn't really explain how we come to have the fixed senses of taste that we have - if those senses be fixed at all, that is. Indeed, I think that the real question (and an open one, if you please) is this: in light of what seem like ceteris paribus reasons in favor of (say) Classical, what 'theory of taste formation' would explain the fact these reasons do not seem to be ones to which people are responsive?

[Okay, so we didn't get to the "Aaron listens to rap without opening a vein" part. Call that Part II of this series.]

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